They had come to claim victory before the first presidential debate had concluded, a show of confidence — and no shortage of satisfaction after a long month of GOP self-doubt — in their belief that their candidate had clearly bested President Obama.
“We have a new race, ladies and gentlemen,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared the moment Romney uttered the last word of his closing statement.
It would be 15 more minutes before the first Democrats arrived in the media spin room — first campaign director Jim Messina, then senior White House adviser David Plouffe, looking tired and uncertain as a handler guided him, weaving and bumping, through the crush of reporters surrounding the Romney surrogates.
At first, an aide held the blue Plouffe sign downward, rather than high above in the jaunty way the Republicans had done.
Reporters rushed over to Plouffe and peppered the usually implacable adviser with questions: Did Obama lack energy? Did the president miss a chance to land jabs? Should he have been more aggressive?
“I think you guys all seem to think that Romney was aggressive,” Plouffe said, trying to fight back. “My sense is you’re going to find some people at home thought he was quite testy. I think sometimes in these debates, particularly with Twitter, ‘Oh, look at this, Romney’s being aggressive.’ ”
Messina was hit with similar questions about the president’s performance: Why did Obama seem to be on the defensive? Do you actually think he won the debate? Was he too much of a professor?
On that last question, Messina said, “No, absolutely not.”
His take echoed Plouffe’s: “I thought Governor Romney came off as testy.”
As for all the punditry that Romney looked stronger, more confident, more aggressive, Messina said, “You guys can award him style points all you want.”
There seemed to be little doubt, though, that Republicans were newly energized after weeks of setbacks. A secretly recorded video of Romney’s remarks at a private fundraiser had put the candidate on the defensive about his commitment to the poor and middle class. Polls showed Obama opening a small but clear lead nationally and in the swing states.
GOP strategists had said Romney needed to hit Obama hard over his record on the economy, and he did that repeatedly.
Just as Romney tried to take command of the debate stage — looking into Obama’s eyes as he he tried to indict his presidency, interrupting the moderator to press his points — the Republican surrogates tried to shape the media narrative coming out of Denver.
“If this was a boxing match, the referee would’ve called it about an hour into the fight,” Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said.
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani tried a different metaphor. “The American people saw the difference between a teacher and student,” he said.